Steam locomotives come to life in a special way at night. They seem to be totally in their element surrounded by darkness. Rolling out of bed at 3:00 am will never make my short list of favorite things but I was glad we arrived at the North Carolina Transportation Museum at Spencer before sunrise. Six o’clock boarding of the Virginian was already underway but I had time to take a few photos before the 7:00 am departure for Lynchburg, Va.
This excursion had its beginning in 2013 when the Virginia Museum of Transportation formed the Fire Up 611 Committee to promote and oversee the restoration and return to the rails of their Norfolk and Western Class J locomotive also known as the Spirit of Roanoke. The 611’s participation in Norfolk and Southern Railroad’s 21st Century Steam project is just the latest chapter in the career of this historic engine.
The 611 is the only surviving example of the 14 Class J 4-8-4 locomotives that Norfolk and Western built at their Roanoke Va. East End Shops between 1941 and 1950. By the time it hit the rails in May of 1950, the switch to diesel engines by most American railroads was well underway. N & W continued steam operation into the late 50’s and the 611, because of a restoration after a derailment in 1956 was chosen to pull the final steam excursions in October of 1959.
The J class represented the pinnacle of steam locomotive development. Operating at 300 psi they produced 5,100 hp and developed 80,000 # of tractive effort. Norfolk and Western used them to power their crack passenger trains like the Cavalier, Powhatan Arrow and the Birmingham Special. They were capable of pulling fifteen passenger cars at 110 mph and averaged 15,000 miles of service per month.
After Norfolk and Western’s “Farewell to Steam” excursions ended, the 611 was eventually donated to the Roanoke Transportation Museum for use as a static display. 1981 saw another restoration for the 611 and it returned to the rails again to power Norfolk and Southern’s steam excursions for twelve years until the program ended in 1994. In 2014 the engine was sent to the NC Transportation Museum at Spencer for a year long overhaul in preparation for it’s current participation in the 21st Century Steam program.
Shortly after sunrise the engineer eased our train forward and we began rolling out of the Spencer Yards headed North.
We arrived in Lynchburg before noon for a three hour layover while the train was turned around and prepared for the return trip. Passengers were invited to take advantage of the free bus shuttle service running through downtown Lynchburg for some sightseeing before the 3:00pm departure.
This was a long train and Norfolk Southern provided a diesel assist just in case. I imagine that this was more for the peace of mind of corporate management than anything else since the crew informed us that the 611 had never needed any help.
Our stay in Lynchburg was a short one. Time to grab some lunch but not much else before we needed to be back on board for the return trip to Spencer. Along the way the rail system’s automatic fault detection system thought it saw something it didn’t like which triggered a mandatory stop while the crew inspected the entire length of the train. This put us behind schedule and it was well after dark when we arrived back at the NC. Transportation Museum. It had been a long day, but one I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.
2017 marks the third season for 611 excursions and May 29 is the last scheduled trip for the 21st Century Steam program. The 611 will return home to the Virginia Museum of Transportation where fundraising efforts continue to build a permanent shelter to house the 611 and two additional steam locomotives. When will it return to the rails at the head of an excursion train? Only time will tell. Let’s hope the latest retirement will be a short one.